A Singularly Distinctive Sign
Temple shepherds were the first to hear the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth (Lk. 2:8-20). The angel’s message brought overwhelming joy to the shepherds because their knowledge of Scripture undoubtedly included the prophecies concerning the Messiah.
Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy would have been of particular interest:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
THE PROPHETIC CONTEXT
The prophet Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy was delivered to Judah during the rule of King Ahaz. It was a dark period of history when Israel to the north had created an alliance with Syria against Judah. In their strategy to destabilize Judah, King Pekah of Israel and King Rezin of Syria plotted to kill King Ahaz and replace him with a Syrian puppet king named Tabeal, thus threatening the Davidic line. (1)
Isaiah assured Ahaz that the threatening alliance would ultimately fail and pressed the king to request a sign that would authenticate the prophecy (Isa. 7:10-17).
Ahaz did not trust God; and had in point of fact already determined to appeal to Assyria for help. Assuming a pseudo-pious tone to camouflage his noncompliance and rebelliously claiming he would not test God, Ahaz refused to ask God for a sign.
In spite of the king’s refusal, Isaiah conveyed the sign—not to unbelieving Ahaz—but to the house of David:
“Hear now, you house of David . . .Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isa. 7:13-14).
While a time frame confirming resolution of the current threat to unbelieving Ahaz was embedded in the prophecy, the sign had even greater significance for the future. The sign given to the house of David (that a virgin would bear a son) had no specified time frame for its fulfillment. However, the embedded message to Ahaz did.
It is critical to grasp that in contrast to the “house of David,” the pronoun “you” in verse seventeen specifies “Ahaz.” The period of time referenced was definite. Using the typical interval between the birth of a child and his ability to discern good and evil, Isaiah told Ahaz that within that specified time span, the alliance between Israel and Syria would fail.
Significantly, two years later in 732 B.C. both Pekah and Rezin were dead along with the feared alliance.
THE PROPHETIC IMPLICATIONS
The prophecy tied fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant to the promised Messiah assuring the house of David and all Israel that the Davidic Dynasty, kingdom and throne were secure and unaffected by the present circumstances. The sign was clear. It was a singularly distinctive sign—the virgin conceiving and bearing a Son—to verify the identity of the promised Messiah.
The use of the definite article identifies a specific virgin referring to the promise of Messiah through the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15). (2) The sign put Israel on high-alert for the coming of the Messiah who would be born of a virgin as Isaiah predicted.
Shortly after giving this sign, Isaiah gave a more comprehensive description of this same Child as the Messianic fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant:
“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isa. 9:6-7).
Messiah, a descendant of David and ruling from King David’s throne, will bring peace to the world not only during the Messianic Kingdom, but continuing into eternity, as Isaiah boldly articulated.
Referencing Messiah as “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father” specifically underscores Messiah’s deity. These names can refer to no one but God. The certainty of Messiah’s advent had its basis in the Davidic Covenant— a unilateral covenant requiring the “zeal of the Lord” to bring it to pass.
As evidenced by their immediate response, the shepherds understood that the coming of Messiah was inseparably linked with God’s covenant relationship to Israel and specific promise to King David.
THE PROPHETIC SIGN REALIZED
The shepherds’ willingness to recognize the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy was demonstrated in their actions. They immediately went to investigate and found Immanuel!
Because the Church has largely deprived Christendom of the context of Scripture, the fact that Isaiah’s prophecy was directed to the house of David is rarely taught and even intentionally ignored by some. Christians who grasp the context of this familiar passage can choose to respond to this singularly distinctive sign like the shepherds did.
It’s easy to be drawn into a reactionary mode of frenzied preparation for Christmas. Rather as people of faith, we must choose to respond by first recognizing that Isaiah’s prophetic sign was fulfilled in Immanuel, a descendant of King David. And then like the shepherds share the Good News with everyone we encounter!
(1) Charles Lee Feinberg, “The Virgin Birth in the Old Testament and Isaiah,” Bibliotheca Sacra, (119:475, July 1962).
(2) God gave the original prophecy shortly after Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. God sees the totality of history from beginning to end with has set specific times for the events of history.
1) Bethlehem with shepherd and flocks in foreground. (Photo credit: American Colony Photo Department/[No known restrictions on publication]/Library of Congress/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
2) Shepherds’ Fields east of Bethlehem. (Photo credit: American Colony Photo Department/[No known restrictions on publication]/Library of Congress/Enhancement, MKM Portfolios)
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken, devotional comments only. Repost/Reprint with permission from the author via Contact Form under ABOUT. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.